Nobel Prize–winning journalist Svetlana Alexievich brings together an extraordinarily diverse group of Russian voices
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In Svetlana Alexievich’s book Voices from Chernobyl: The oral history of a nuclear disaster (1997), a photographer discusses the strange pull of the Exclusion Zone. “Mankind had abandoned these places forever,” he says. “And we were the first to experience this ‘forever’.”
A soldier posted to the Zone describes what “forever” looks like:
At first there were still lights on in the houses, but then they turned those off. We’d be driving around, and a wild boar would jump out of a school building at us. Or else a rabbit. Everywhere, animals instead of people: in the houses, the schools, the clubs.
It is a scene familiar from Nevil Shute’s On the Beach or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, but here it has a distinctive Soviet flavour. The soldier registers the red flags and banners and posters – “Our goal is the happiness of all mankind”, “The world proletariat will triumph”, “The ideas of Lenin are immortal” – and for the first time sees them through the eyes of an outsider: “is this what our life is like?” Three years later he hands in his Communist Party card: “Chernobyl blew my mind. It set me free.”
It is clear from these testimonies that Chernobyl blew everybody’s mind, and Alexievich’s book has some of this effect on the reader. The setting itself is supernatural, governed by the dark magic of radiation: black rain, yellow and green puddles, red forests. Against this backdrop, people share their astonishing stories. A young wife pulls pieces of her husband’s internal organs out of his mouth as he dies from radiation sickness. A mother sends pleading letters to foreign hospitals, seeking help for her daughter who was born without orifices: “I’m all right with her becoming a lab frog, a lab rabbit, just as long as she lives.” And yet the power of this book lies less in this material – extraordinary as it is – than in the voices themselves. Almost every monologue is revelatory, containing some dark kernel of truth, some hard-won nugget of poetry or philosophy.
Born in the Ukraine and raised in Belarus, Alexievich was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2015 “for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time”. Her method appears straightforward: “For three years I rode around and asked people: the workers at the nuclear plant, the scientists, the former Party bureaucrats, doctors, soldiers, helicopter pilots, minders, refugees, re-settlers.” And yet her art remains mysterious: how does she elicit such testimonies? Is it the craft of her questioning, the quality of her listening? Or is it her patience, returning again and again to the same subjects, waiting for the moment of revelation?
Chernobyl, it emerges, lends itself to philosophy. “No matter who you talk to about Chernobyl, they all want to philosophize,” says Sergei Vasilyevich Sobolev, deputy head of the executive committee of the Shield of Chernobyl Association. “It’s hard even to explain – it doesn’t fit into the imagination.” This imaginative failure is realised most poignantly in the lives of the local peasants. An old woman sits at the side of the road milking a cow; both are wrapped in cellophane. But nobody can make sense of Chernobyl. The intelligentsia are confronted by the limitations of Chekhov and Tolstoy. Even the scientists confess to being flummoxed. “What do savages understand about lightning?” asks Valentin Alekseevich Borisevich, former head of the Laboratory of the Institute of Nuclear Energy at the Belarussian Academy of Sciences. Perhaps most significantly, the Soviet leadership struggled to understand the disaster’s fallout, socially as much as ecologically. “We always say ‘we’, and never ‘I’,” recalls a local resident, Natalya Arsenyevna Roslova. After Chernobyl, “we’re beginning to learn to say ‘I’.”
The book’s form is governed by the laws of music as much as those of drama, and it unfolds as a series of laments and choruses: an oratorio for the end of time. There are moments of gallows humour, such as when a Ukrainian woman advertises Chernobyl apples for sale: “Some need them for their mother-in-law, some for their boss.” But Alexievich begins and ends in the same minor key, as women bear witness to the appalling deaths of their husbands. Towards the end, she introduces a “Children’s Chorus” of almost unbearable lyricism, in which a boy remembers his departed friends: “Yulia, Katya, Vadim, Oksana, Oleg, and now Andrei … The whole sky is alive for me now when I look at it, because they’re all there.” Like the impeccably composed photojournalism of Tom Stoddart, the book offers an aesthetic thrill even as it horrifies. This might seem perverse, except that such formal mastery serves its moral purpose: it makes it impossible to turn away.
Alexievich’s Secondhand Time: The last of the Soviets (2013), recently translated into English by Bela Shayevich (Text Publishing; $34.99), tracks that uneasy transition from “we” to “I”, mapping the aftermath of the Soviet Union. It is a larger, baggier book than Voices from Chernobyl, and its monologues are peppered with ellipses, retractions and last-minute confessions. This reflects a loosening of Alexievich’s style, but also her broader subject. Despite multiple viewpoints, Voices from Chernobyl offered a form of consensus: Chernobyl was a disaster and beyond knowing. Secondhand Time charts the more contested terrain of the past and the future; its only consensus is a consensus of suffering.
In her introductory ‘Remarks from an Accomplice’, Alexievich reveals more about her process:
I don’t ask people about socialism, I want to know about love, jealousy, childhood, old age. Music, dances, hairdos. The myriad sundry details of a vanished way of life. It’s the only way to chase the catastrophe into the contours of the ordinary and try to tell a story.
Alexievich seeks a history of the quotidian, and it is no coincidence that the majority of her subjects are women. Part of her achievement is her level of access, not only to those at ground zero but also to their inner lives and the stories they tell themselves. Often she captures her greatest material at the end of a conversation, when the tape recorder has been or is shortly to be switched off, and the subject has surrendered to the momentum of disclosure.
“You shouldn’t put so much stock in what people say, in human truth,” an anonymous official from the Kremlin tells her. “History records the lives of ideas. People don’t write it, time does.” Alexievich knows this as well as anyone. Time is one of her themes, and both the past and the future emerge as characters in her books. In a devastating sleight of hand at the end of Voices from Chernobyl, she implicates the reader in the catastrophe: “These people had already seen what for everyone else is still unknown. I felt like I was recording the future.” In Secondhand Time, a former Party official views her with suspicion – “I’m sure you’re just going to get rid of everything I’m saying” – but Alexievich reassures her. “I want to be a cold-blooded historian, not one who is holding a blazing torch,” she writes. “Let time be the judge.”
The great strength of Secondhand Time is that there is no single story. For those of us who have grown up in the West on a diet of unrestricted samizdat, it is easy to imagine that every Soviet citizen lived with a constant sense of oppression, but Alexievich illustrates that many felt looked after by the state. “You have to ask how these things coexisted,” ponders Margarita Pogrebitskaya, a doctor, “our happiness and the fact that they came for some people at night and took them away. Some people disappeared, while others cried behind the door. For some reason, I don’t remember any of that.” She concedes that the Soviet Union “might have been a prison, but I was warmer in that prison”. From an outsider’s perspective this might look like Stockholm syndrome, but the state offered more than the comforts of institutionalisation: it provided a faith. “We loved our Motherland,” says Pogrebitskaya, “our love for her was boundless, she was everything to us!”
When God dies, what happens to the believers? There is an uncanny number of suicides in these pages, and several subjects report making earlier attempts on their own lives. “I sought out people who had been permanently bound to the Soviet idea,” Alexievich explains, “letting it penetrate them so deeply that there was no separating them.” An anonymous source from the Kremlin discusses the suicide of Sergey Fyodorovich Akhromeyev, former chief of the General Staff of the Soviet Armed Forces: “He was an idealist, a romantic communist. He believed in the ‘glittering peaks of communism’ … It’s embarrassing to admit this now.”
Much of this book’s pathos lies in the stories of workers who sacrificed their lives – and in some cases the lives of others – to this faith. An octogenarian Party member admits that as a teenager he informed on his uncle. When the Red Army slaughtered his uncle, his mother kicked him out of the home. “I want to die a communist,” he tearfully confesses. “That’s my final wish.” In the book’s most disturbing chapter, a man recounts a conversation with his former fiancée’s grandfather, an executioner in a death squad. “Blood is pungent,” recalls the grandfather. “It’s a special kind of smell … a little like the smell of semen.” He claims the troops were given special massages on their strained hands and index fingers in order to meet their shooting quotas. “The Soviet state cost us dearly. It needs to be guarded. Preserved!”
One of the consequences of the fall of the Soviet Union was an unbridgeable generation gap. Numerous subjects describe their parents as naive, not only because of their faith in Soviet ideals but also because of their inability to adapt to the new order: “Mama was too embarrassed to sell things.” Meanwhile, members of the older generation lament the cynicism of their progeny: “We fought, we killed – and for whom? For Stalin? It was for you, you idiots!” A bewildered father describes his son laughing while reading Solzhenitsyn. “He will never understand me or my mother because he didn’t spend a single day of his life in the Soviet Union. My mother – my son – me … we all live in different countries, even though they’re all Russia.”
There are many Russias in these pages, and almost as many ways to suffer: the forced labour camps, the omnipresent World War Two, Afghanistan, terrorism, gangster capitalism, civil war. In ‘A Man’s Story’, a survivor describes the Polizei burying Jewish children alive, drunkenly throwing candy in the pit as the parents stood by in silence; in the following ‘A Woman’s Story’, the widow of a Polizei reveals that she married the partisan who killed her husband because she saw no other way to save her own life and that of her daughter. At the end of his life, after she had borne him a son, he asked if she had ever loved him. “I didn’t say anything. He started laughing.” The cumulative effect of such stories is overwhelming, particularly as they are not confined to the past. In the second half of the book, Alexievich documents the brutal repetition of history in Azerbaijan, Tajikistan and Belarus; hence the “Secondhand Time”, or missed opportunity, of the book’s title.
One of the book’s unwelcome truths is that of the banality of evil. “When it comes down to it, there is no such thing as chemically pure evil,” observes a man on the street. “It’s not just Stalin and Beria, it’s also our neighbour Yuri and beautiful Aunt Olga.” The aforementioned story of the death squads contains multiple levels of unreliability, but concludes with a striking passage in which the narrator – the former fiancé of the executioner’s granddaughter – muses on the death machine. “Only handfuls of them lost their minds. While the rest led normal lives: kissing girls and playing chess … Buying toys for their kids … Things are only that perfect in nature. The flywheel turns, but there’s no one to blame.” Such knowledge is hard to live with. “I’m afraid. Knowing what I know about people, I’m afraid of myself.” He concludes with words almost directly from Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago: “Man vacillates between good and evil for his entire life.”
The miracle is that some can salvage meaning from this suffering. In a darkly poetic recollection of a childhood on the Siberian steppe, starved of both food and love, writer Maria Voiteshonok explains, “I have to get a handle on the suffering, own it completely, find my way out of it, and also come back from it with something new.” One of the most profound revelations comes from a former labour camp inmate, Gleb, incarcerated from age 16 until he was nearly 30. “He wouldn’t have given up his years in the camp for anything in the world,” says his wife, Olga Karimova. “That was his secret treasure trove, his wealth.” Only at the end of his life did he try to explain it to her:
It’s like when you go to the theater. From your seat in the audience, you see a beautiful fairy tale – a carefully decorated set, brilliant actors, mysterious light, but when you go backstage … As soon as you step into the wings, you see broken planks, rags, unfinished and abandoned canvases … empty vodka bottles, food scraps. There’s no fairy tale. It’s dark and filthy … It’s like I’d been taken backstage.
This backstage vision becomes the reader’s own. Suffering seems the only reality; all else is mirage. In a brief – and welcome – moment of respite, Karimova puzzles over the capacity of Italians to enjoy life, their understanding that “happiness is an entire world. An amazing world! With so many little nooks, windows, doors that you need lots of little keys for.” Those keys, those doors, are not the business of Secondhand Time, and yet Alexievich does offer moments of redemption. Before Gleb dies, he has one last request: “Write that I was a happy man on my tombstone. That I was loved. The most terrible torment is not being loved.” Some of the book’s most moving passages concern Voiteshonok’s late introduction to love, after her aunt discovered her in a foster-care centre:
You go to bed, and your aunt wraps your feet in the hem of her nightgown to warm them. She’d swaddle me. You can lie there somewhere near her stomach … It’s like being in the womb … And that’s why I don’t remember anything evil. I’ve forgotten it all.
Many of Alexievich’s subjects are relieved to talk. “My whole life, I’ve been waiting for someone to find me and I would tell them everything,” confesses Voiteshonok, “and they would keep asking, ‘And then what? And then what?’” By asking this, alongside other questions about “sundry details”, Alexievich has found a way to get to the things that count: love, death, good, evil, the nature of the human heart. The result is a book not just about the Soviet Union but about all of humanity, and I have never read anything like it. Alexievich walks directly into the furnace, bringing the reader with her. It is not comfortable but it is transformative, leaving you with the perspective of that soldier in Chernobyl: “is this what our life is like?”
Anna Goldsworthy is a pianist and writer. Her most recent book is Welcome to Your New Life. Her most recent album, Beethoven Piano Trios, was released in March.